With food supplies threatened by pandemic, tribes say they’re still waiting for permission for special hunts

A Sitka Black-tailed deer on Kodiak Island. (Photo by Steve Hillebrand/USFWS)

Tribal governments and other communities in Alaska have been waiting for nearly two months for an answer to emergency hunting requests. The pandemic has caused some food supply disruption concerns, and so at least six small localities across the state have asked for special permission to hunt out of season. 

That decision is typically granted by a federal board, but because everything about the pandemic is unprecedented, it hasn’t been simple.

Joel Jackson is the Organized Village of Kake’s Tribal President. When he first approached federal employees about opening the deer and moose season earlier than normal, he didn’t expect the process would take this long and the decision would be passed around to different levels of federal agencies. 

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He requested the emergency action back in April because grocery store shelves weren’t fully stocked with items like meat. 

“There’s still limitations from our one little store,” Jackson said.

It’s not just food scarcity Jackson is concerned with. Shipments of food are regularly arriving now, but it’s all processed meat slaughtered and packaged from the Lower 48. Jackson doesn’t think that’s as healthy or culturally nourishing for elders in the community — elders who could be especially vulnerable to complications from COVID-19. 

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Kake isn’t on lockdown anymore, and Jackson says people are traveling in and out of town. He thinks this is a crucial window when residents need to feel their best.

“If this virus ever makes it into our community, which I hope it never does, we need to have our people at the best health they can be by supplying them with the best food that we can give them,” Jackson said.

The federal Office of Subsistence Management is fielding multiple requests like Kake’s, and there isn’t an exact blueprint for how this should be done. The agency is used to responding to emergency hunting actions in the event of storms, but processing this during an ongoing pandemic presents a different set of challenges. 

records request filed by Alaska’s Energy Desk shows how the agency is trying to speed up that process. A U.S. Forest Service ranger district in Petersburg was delegated the authority on June 2 to grant emergency hunting actions for rural subsistence residents — like Kake. That negates some of the bureaucratic rigmarole, and it’s happening in other parts of Alaska, too. Still, there are certain caveats for final approval. One of them is that a state entity has to confirm the need. 

Bryan Fisher is an Incident Commander at Alaska’s Unified Command: a central hub for various state agencies to respond to emergency situations, such as a pandemic. 

“We just have not seen any supply chain disruptions or any loss of the ability to preserve previously gathered subsistence foods,” Fisher said.

The Unified Command has been helping restock food banks across the state, among other things. But the group has also been tasked by the Alaska Department of Fish & Game to make food need assessments in remote communities. 

“They turned to us to do that validation of whether there was a real break down in that supply chain that would cause them to consider opening hunts on state land and working with the subsistence board to figure that out,” Fisher said.

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Some clarification: The federal subsistence board approves special actions on federal lands, like emergency hunts. And the state of Alaska has its own process for state lands. In this case, the state Unified Command’s determination also weighs on the Peterburg ranger district’s ability to grant emergency hunts on federal land. In Kake’s situation, that decision was deferred back to the federal subsistence board. Essentially, Kake’s in a similar spot as they were back in April when they first requested the emergency hunting action. 

Jackson is disappointed that a decision between a federally recognized tribal government and a federal agency is being delayed further because of input from the state. He says last season’s deer meat is running low in many people’s freezers. The community knows what’s best for them. 

“We’ve always been conservationists,” Jackson said. “We’ve always been mindful: Never take too much.”

The federal subsistence board is expected to take this up in a closed door meeting the week of June 22. And Jackson hopes they account for all the ways a household with deer or moose on the dinner plate is a reflection of health during these uncertain times.  

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